September 11, 2001, was a day not unlike today— clear blue skies, crisp, peaceful. By midmorning, everything would change after a team of terrorists took control of four jet airliners and turned them against America.
Looking back 11 years later, it’s remarkable that the United States hasn’t fallen victim to another mass attack. After all, in the days following 9/11, we all came to understand the attacks to be another stage of an ongoing campaign by those who wanted to destroy our nation – and our way of life. Remarkably, and fortunately, no attack of similar scale has been carried out on American soil.
Following the attacks, our nation launched military strikes in retaliation, to bring justice against al Qaeda for this grievous strike against the American people. Operation Enduring Freedom began less than a month after the attacks on October 7, 2001. It was not a fight – or a war – that we were prepared for. Our military was still postured for the sort of conventional war that was carried out in Iraq beginning in 2003 – and as events showed, was unprepared for the aftermath of even a conventional conflict.
We overcame those challenges, but at tremendous cost in blood and treasure. The successes we have had are due to the quiet professionals, citizen soldiers, and courageous leaders who stayed the course, took the fight to an elusive enemy, and faced missions – combat and noncombat – they’d never imagined. Today there are some 80,000 troops still fighting in Afghanistan, though it seems as if they are forgotten, judging by how little attention their efforts receive.
We often ask the question “are we safer now than we were at 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001?” In many ways, the answer is a decisive “yes.” It’s much more difficult for terrorists to achieve their deadly ends, especially on such a large scale. Our transportation and infrastructure systems have been hardened against potential attacks. Dangerous leaders like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are gone as the result of the bravery and commitment of U.S. service members. And perhaps by the only measure that matters, no attack on the scale of 9/11 has been successfully launched in the U.S. since that clear September morning.
But on another level, questions remain. If we learned anything after 9/11, it was that breakdowns within military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies had a direct connection to the success of the attacks. Our military and intelligence agencies have since developed capabilities that did not exist prior to September 11, but their procurement, development, and budgeting processes are still stuck in the 1980s. The treatment of veterans of this conflict – embodied in the Walter Reed scandal – is a blemish on the honor of a nation that promises to look after those who take up the burden of service. The VA’s backlogs are still at record levels.
When 9/11 happened, and in the conflicts that followed, we had to deal with the reality of deferred reforms. American civilians paid the price on 9/11, and American servicemembers have paid it since. Washington’s answer was what Washington’s answer always is – spend lots of money. Four years into the Iraq conflict, Secretary Gates had to intervene personally to ensure that MRAPs were deployed in sufficient numbers to protect our servicemembers from an IED threat that had existed almost since the beginning of active combat operations. That’s about as long as it took to develop, build, and field the atomic bomb in World War II. Changes happened, but reform didn’t.
That, therefore, is the challenge for those of us who remember that cool, beautiful morning – who remember where we were, what we were doing, and who we were talking to when we learned of the attacks in Washington and New York. The Department of Defense is facing massive cuts across the board, should the sequestration mechanism be triggered in January. Some cuts are inevitable, given the critical need to bring the growth of our national debt under control. But we must always remember the lesson of that September morning – that it is as much a question of posture, capability, and operational culture as budget that determines whether or not we’re safe, and the courage of those who stand post on the wall in the dark of night.
We will never forget.
God Bless America.